If you’ve been even somewhat active in Singapore’s restaurant scene at any point in the past two decades or so, there’s a high chance you’ve eaten something that was brought in by Classic Fine Foods. The stalwart fine foods importer has been supplying restaurants in Singapore and beyond for years, importing and distributing everything seafood to fresh vegetables and dry goods; helping chefs fulfill their promises of seasonality and quality. This, however, has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic. Restaurants everywhere have been forced to cut dine-in operations, while at the same time, home-cooking is on the rise — prompting the Classic Fine Foods to launch their B2C arm, Classic Deli, offering the same, fine-dining grade produce and ingredients that Michelin-starred restaurants use.
The Peak speaks to general manager Karen Tay to find out more about how the global food distribution business has changed in this new world.
How has the business changed so far ever since the pandemic? Has it been a large shift from B2B to B2C?
The F&B industry has been significantly affected during this time. As a fine foods specialist with a core business focused on supplying premium ingredients to the best hotels as well as fine-dining and Michelin-starred restaurants across Singapore, our B2B business has been affected like everyone else.
It’s vital for us to remain relevant to our customers, including those who have adjusted their menus and those who start to offer takeaways and deliveries. Whatever new needs or demands there are, we have to not only meet them, but do it well. We maintain strong relationships with the chefs, and listen to them and support their changing needs.
At the same time, home cooking is on the rise, following the implementation of social distancing measures. We have been seeing a surge in requests from end-consumers for fresh produce and other food products to be delivered to their homes. This prompted us to launch a B2C platform to retail our products.
What were some of the biggest challenges with making the transition?
The pressure to set up an e-commerce platform in time, and serving a new customer segment. That said, we are fortunate to have a relatively flat organisation structure and an agile, “can-do” culture. We made the decision very early and quickly to launch Classic Deli.
We put together a strong, cross-functional task force with the best expertise in-house for this and quickly identified suitable external partners, including a developer, to assist in this project.
Nevertheless, coming up with an operational basic site within two weeks was still a challenge. Kudos to my dedicated team who worked almost non-stop in the initial period to make it happen. As time was of essence, we didn’t focus on launching the perfect solution — which realistically could take months — but instead the best version we could; while making improvements every day in parallel. We are now launching phase 2, with easier navigation and more content to be shared.
Secondly, while we were very used to putting ourselves in the shoes of professional chefs, we had to consider the perspectives of a new customer base: consumers. The challenge is to align each function of our company to the expectations of these discerning home cooks. From product selection, packaging, customer service, marketing to delivery, each of us has to rethink our way of working to engage with a new type of customer. For example, our portfolio of products had been originally curated to satisfy the requirements of professional chefs and kitchen operations. We needed to identify those that were also relevant and practical for home cooking — and were pleasantly surprised by how many were.
As I tell our team, it’s the same principle; we seek to bring enjoyable experiences via our specially selected products. Perhaps more important than ever now is to give people a taste of the place that they cannot travel to – be it restaurants or overseas.
Has the pandemic changed the way food – especially gourmet produce – is moving around the world? How are the farmers and producers doing?
We have kept close communication with most of the European and Australian/New Zealand farmers and producers that we work with. Due to lockdowns, some of them were initially forced to reduce or stop production for a while. Additionally, disruptions in shipping and aviation further created a supply issue.
Concurrently, due to the higher prices of perishables (due to higher airfreight costs) and overall impact of a diminished F&B industry, demand for gourmet products has also declined. Having said that we have seen a growing demand in Singapore for gourmet products for consumption at home. People want to eat better and more sustainably.
So many producers are also pivoting to target end consumers. We do have some partners actively approaching us with portioned meats, more consumer friendly packaging formats, and even completely different products (including organic/healthier/more sustainable alternatives) just for this new customer group. Everyone is adapting.
Food safety, traceability and sustainability in the food supply chain are topics which have been talked about on the fringes and now finally catapulted to the forefront. This is much needed change as more buying decisions start to take into consideration the provenance of the food and its impact on health and the environment. We have always been a strong advocate for this and are fortunate to work with many such gourmet food producers with similar ethos.
What are some new practices and habits that you and your staff have had to put in place because of the pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, our business was a lot about face-to-face interactions. Internally, we had many team activities such as cooking classes, table-tennis, and futsal. We regularly organised product launches, themed events, chefs’ tables, other networking events to bring together our customers that were F&B professionals.
We also have a facility called TheTasteLab helmed by our in-house Executive Chef who conducts training classes throughout the year. We also used to travel frequently to visit our partners overseas at their farms and production facilities.
All that was gone overnight, and we have transitioned to virtual solutions such as Zoom for internal team meetings, Bingo and happy hour with our colleagues. Our chef has been busy conducting Instagram live chats with other chefs, producing training videos and organising live training courses.
Our partners are training and sharing with us via video apps — like showing us around a caviar farm virtually — and we’ve been actively using video content to introduce farmers and producers to customers. Some of these habits will definitely continue after the crisis as people start to become more accustomed to the digital way of communicating.